look into the afrofuture with the BFI’s new film season
The BFI takes us on a trip with the first retrospective of genre-warping Afrofuturist film, Inside Afrofuturism, i-D caught up with curator Ashley Clark to talk about Sun Ra, Afrika Bambaataa and Sci Fi feminism.
Afrofuturism is a mind-expanding collision of sci-fi, space fantasy and magical realism exploring the black experience. Defiantly non-generic it's better known for cosmic music visionaries Sun Ra, George Clinton, Lee Scratch Perry and King Tubby than it is for film, but Inside Afrofuturism explores its cinematic roots and interstellar journeys. Part of the BFI's Sci-fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season, this first major survey presents defining films from the 70s to the present day, with features, animation, shorts and documentaries. The collection of rare finds and screenings includes feminist sci-fi Born In Flames; 80s alien-on-the-run film Brother From Another Planet; time travel parable Ashoka; and psychedelic love-story An Oversimplification of her Beauty. The season gives a chance to delve deeper into ideas and debate, with panels and a talk featuring hip-hop originator Afrika Bambaataa. i-D caught up with curator Ashley Clark.
Afrofuturism, what is it?
The term was coined to describe the works of African-American authors who were imagining alternative black futures in science fiction. African-Americans in a real sense are descendants of alien abductees: forcibly brought to a country, subjugated and discriminated against. Afrofuturism is a way for alternative voices to carve out a space in the future. Broadly speaking, it's a spectrum of aesthetics, ideas and imagery covering sci-fi, speculative fiction, cosmology, African history and mythology, Afrocentrism and magical realism. It's slightly nebulous, which is why it hits so many mediums: photography, film, music, performance, visual art. If you can't define something, it has a built-in safeguard against appropriation - I hope we won't be seeing Iggy Azalea in an Afrofuturist spectacular.
What can we expect from the films?
It's interesting to have it within a science fiction season, because some of the films aren't. Ornette: Made in America is a documentary by an avant-garde filmmaker profiling an avant-garde jazz musician. Because of his dedication to ideas of space, Ornette Coleman was asked by NASA to contribute music to their space programme. It's an amazing story. We could look at Independence Day and I am Legend, but then you're branching into black visibility in film, which is different. It's great they have a black hero, but I don't think they interrogate the experiences of African-Americans.
What are the major ideas?
A sense of tackling something real through a lens of pure imagination and entertainment. At a basic level you don't have to rely on hard realism. I remember when Top Boy came out everyone was excited about it and I thought, "Fuck's sake, another urban crime drama about young black people. Can't we be free to imagine?" Film being a visual medium, it's apt to do that. In music, Sun Ra, Parliament, George Clinton and Afrika Bambaata are real showmen. There's a visual element that's striking and joyous. Someone like Sun Ra was attuned to the social realities of the time. Space Is The Place posits space as a utopic destination for black Americans, but the film is very much grounded in the real. Brother From Another Planet is another great example of a film with historical connections. A riff on the "underground railroad", you have this guy from space, who has these white guys chasing him trying to return him to captivity. He lands in Harlem and ends up being looked after by this secret group of sympathetic people.
Who falls under it today?
From music, King Britt, Flying Lotus, and Janaelle Monae. You could have authors like Sam Delaney, and Terrence Nance who directed Oversimplification. In visual art, Nick Cave the performance artist, Kara Walker, Chris Ofili.
What's the relationship between music and film?
Music videos are another great form for expression: Flying Lotus, Thundercat. In hip-hop - with Outkast, Dr Octagon, and Wu Tang Clan - there's fertile ground, because it's a lyrical thing as well. You've got so much room to be poetic about these alternate dimensions in lyrics.
What's happening in Afrofuturism outside the US?
The Last Angel of History by John Akomfrah is the most comprehensive exploration of Afrofuturist ideas on film, and he's British. I'd urge people to look at the shorts. Kenya's first science fiction movie, Pumzi by Wanuri Kahiu is in there. And Afronauts by Frances Bodomo, from Ghana, is fantastic. South Londoner Kibwe Tavares made Robots of Brixton, a short which uses science fiction tropes to investigate the '80s Brixton Riots. It came out in 2011, shortly before a new set of riots happened. It's rooted in the past, but its imagery and ideas make it timeless. It also happened to be prescient.
Inside Afrofuturism is on at the BFI Southbank, 29th November - 2nd December.
Text Sharon Thiruchelvam
Images courtesy The BFI